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What To Do With An Unexpected Windfall

Jeff Shuck
August 22, 2014

It seems like a good time to give some unsolicited advice about what to do if a fundraising program unexpectedly takes off and your organization finds itself with a spare hundred thousand bucks, or heck, tens of millions of dollars.

The pressure from receiving that kind of windfall will be enormous. I know — I sit on a board of an organization that several years ago doubled its size in a few weeks’ time through a campaign that was enormously more successfully than planned. The pressure comes from the public, who want to know how their donations will be used; from watchdog groups, who are waiting to rate your every move; from the press, who are ready to pounce when you make a mistake; and from families of impacted constituents, who want the best for their loved ones.

Most of all, the pressure can come from internal leaders and staff. These folks have been working for years to push the rock of change uphill — slow, methodical, and sometimes tedious work. And then suddenly with one campaign we’ve finally been acknowledged! We’ve done something huge! Let’s make a massive investment in our mission! Let’s show the world!

Here’s my advice: take it slow. Stop and think. Creating an endowment to ensure against future fundraising downturns doesn’t sound very interesting, but it might be the exact right thing to do. Putting money into operations and infrastructure investments, though charity rating agencies will hate it, might be the right way to position your organization for scalability in the long run. Putting seed funding into a research consortium that can leverage your investment by pooling it with contributions from other organizations, so that your money goes even further, sounds hard to describe to the public but might be the thing that creates breakthrough results ten years from now, when all of the hub-bub is a distant memory.

If you win $1,000 at the lottery it is probably tempting to take all of your friends out to dinner and buy that new iPhone. But a month later, you’ll be wishing you paid down your credit card bill.

Andrew Tobias has written a great book on personal finance called “The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need.” It’s fantastic. In it, he has a chapter entitled “What to Do If You Inherit a Million Dollars.” His advice is priceless — one piece is, “Do not buy a boat.” In a nutshell, he says: save it. You’ll thank yourself later.

If I had the great fortune to be on the receiving end of a massive viral fundraising success story this summer, I’d try to take the same advice. I’d treat my staff to a nice pizza party — they’ve earned it. And then I’d think about what small group of advisors I’d surround myself with to get me to slow down and think. The windfall is short-term; the need is long-term. Take your time.

We recently shared this advice during an NPR Marketplace segment that focused on the windfall of support and donations celebrities can bring to causes. You can listen to the segment below and read the full article here.

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